As a grandchild of Indian Railways – my maternal grandfather and several members of my mother’s extended family worked for the Railways – I have a special affection for this institution, and for trains in general. My political career has seen me observe and work with the Railways in more than one capacity, and I used to be a keen student of the Railway Budget till the BJP-led government went and derailed it.
Since then I have listened to the Finance Minister’s Budget speech with extra care – both to try and make sense of the government’s financial and economic plans, as well as to pick up the appallingly few lines that are now devoted to the gigantic infrastructure of the Indian Railways.
After this year’s Budget speech, I put 12 specific questions in parliament to the Finance Minister, relating to the Railways. In the normal course, I would have put these questions to the Railway Minister, but last year, the BJP government subsumed the Railway Budget into the General Budget. So here are my questions. There’s no politics here, no rhetoric. Just 12 hard questions.
One: The published operating ratio shows a figure of 94 per cent. Now consider the absolute numbers. When Suresh Prabhu presented his final Railway Budget, as the then Railway Minister, the revenue target was Rs. 1 lakh, 90,000 crore. The next time the Finance Minister announced a revenue target of Rs. 1 lakh, 72,000 crore. The actual figure that was finally released was Rs. 1 lakh, 59,000 crore. We’ve done the math. These numbers don’t add up to an operating ratio of 94 per cent. The real number is in excess of 100 per cent. Will the government please come clean?
Two: My second question relates to the Depreciation Reserve Fund. This fund is a critical component of Railway finances. It is used for ongoing maintenance. A General Manager dips into it without delay and long-winded references to Delhi to repair tracks and other crucial infrastructure to prevent accidents and mishaps and save lives. This fund has been reduced to a tenth of its value – from Rs. 5,000 crore to Rs. 500 crore. Why? Will the Sanraksha Account of Rs. 20,000 crore replace it? What are the modalities of the new system, if any? Or is passenger safety not a priority?
Three: From 2000 to 2014, the CAGR – Compounded Annual Growth Rate – of Indian Railways was six per cent. In the past three years – the glorious “Achhe Din” of BJP raj – the CAGR is down to two per cent, as per my calculations. What’s going on?
Four: The government claimed it removed a separate Railway Budget to prevent favouritism to particular states and to save Indian Railways from regional and political lobbying. Noble idea. But do consider that the allocation under the head of Railways in this Budget is 160 per cent higher (when compared to the previous year) for Uttarakhand, 30 per cent for Rajasthan, 20 per cent for Gujarat, and 20 per cent for Madhya Pradesh.
These are all BJP-ruled states. For Delhi, it is minus 40 per cent; for Kerala, it is minus 25 per cent; for Bengal, it is minus 14 per cent. These are all non-BJP ruled states. Hello, Sir-ji?
Five: In the end, it all boils down to performance, right? You promised new lines of 800 km in a year. Actual delivery: 400 km. You promised gates conversion of 900 km. Actual delivery: 550 km. Doubling of tracks: you promised 1,800 km. Actual delivery: 900 km. The shortfall is 50 per cent. What does one call this? “Achhe half a din”?
Six: Is Indian Railways on the Union list, State list or Concurrent list of the Constitution? Like a good lawyer, the Finance Minister will laugh and ask me to consult my class VII civics book. I know the answer, Sir, but then tell me why the Railways is asking state governments to bear more and more of infrastructure cost?
What happens to poorer states such as those of the Northeast – for example Tripura or Nagaland, where your party is currently promising the moon? What happens to debt-stressed states like Bengal? Is this Feku Federalism, with the states paying the Centre rather than the other way round? Next, as border states, will some states have to pay its share of the Defence Budget as well?
These were my first six questions. I will write on the remaining six tomorrow. I must emphasise that all 12 questions have already been asked in parliament.
The government has said it will respond in a month – sometime in the middle of March. I guess it needs time to find the answers, just like it still needs time to count the notes that came in after demonetization.
Anyway, see you with six more questions tomorrow.